A contentious question. In my humble opinion, and drawing on the experience and knowledge I have gained ascending all the routes on Table Mountain many times over, I have the following to say on the subject:
For an accurate answer, we need to define “hard”, “route” and “Table Mountain”.
What defines a hard route? Four things: length, terrain, technicality and exposure to heights.
Length: the component least likely to lead to drama if you get it wrong, but still impacts on a route’s severity.
Terrain: while the average hiker might not despair when a route turns out to be a bit longer than anticipated, rough terrain could bring him to his knees as well as tears. Dense vegetation and loose rock are the two main ingredients that complicates terrain; others include cliffs (dealt with separately under Technicality) and wet watercourses.
Technicality: this refers to the degree of climbing skill required to negotiate vertical sections. Getting it wrong on technical difficulty is not cool and carries considerable drama-potential. Routes on Table Mountain are graded according to the most difficult climbing encountered along the way. An ‘A’ route involves walking only, with perhaps the occasional use of hands to negotiate steeper sections; a ‘B’ route calls for some elementary climbing (scrambling), sometimes necessitating the use of a rope; a ‘C’ route involves more serious scrambling, often requiring a rope. Upwards from ‘C’ is regarded as proper rock-climbing.
Exposure to heights: although only a mental strain, it should not be discounted, as it can sap your energy as much as an uphill slog. And if you don’t have a head for heights, an exposed ‘B’ route can feel more like a ‘C’ or even a ‘D’. Incompetence or negligence on an exposed route – especially ‘B’ and ‘C’ grades – could spell disaster.
Does a route’s gradient affect its overall difficulty? Not as much as you might think. To gain a 1000 meters in elevation along a straight route with a 45 degrees gradient, you would cover a distance of 1400 meters. To gain the same elevation along a route with a 22.5 degrees gradient, you would cover a distance of 2400 meters. That’s a full kilometer further. Many variables come into play when putting this into practice: the gentler route might be bushy, while the steeper route follows an open path – which one you gonna take? Or the steeper one gets summertime shade most of the day, while the gentler one is in full sun the whole way. In my opinion, it’s best not to fret too much about a route’s gradient; there are other more important factors to take into account.
What qualifies as a route on Table Mountain? For the purposes of this exercise, we will only consider current routes – routes that are still in existence. There is quite a number of hiking routes on Table Mountain that has fallen into oblivion and obscurity; trails long since overgrown and faded from memory, with only a few lone, moss-covered cairns as evidence to their erstwhile existence. A route like Slangolie Face (C-grade) on the north side of Slangolie Buttress, one of the Twelve Apostles, has probably not seen any hikers in decades. Opened in 1922 by A.G.S. Black and party, you’d be lucky to even find a crumbling cairn on it, let alone a hint of a path. So we’re not going to count Slangolie Face as a route, apologies to Mr. Black.
For many people, Table Mountain comprises only the tabletop you see from the city center. But there’s much more mountain hidden behind its iconic facade: the Twelve Apostles, the undulations and mounds of the Back Table and the forested buttresses on the Suburban side. All these areas are considered to be part of the Table Mountain massif. Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak are not included. So we will consider routes leading up all sides of the Table Mountain massif, not only those terminating on the tabletop summit. Bear in mind that some routes do not lead all the way to the summit, but latches onto another route for the remainder of the way. An example would be Kloof Corner (C) – a route in its own right; not a sub-route or variation – which terminates about 150 meters below the summit, from where hikers use the India Venster route to gain the summit.
It’s tempting to assume that a C-grade route would take the honors as the hardest route on Table Mountain. But the reality is that an exposed B-grade route leading up bushy and brittle rock feels much harder than a C-grade route involving clean and short C-grade pitches on sound rock.
So let’s line up the candidates. Starting on the east side of the mountain, the first candidate is Hiddingh-Ascension incorporating its Ferny Dell variation. Weighing in at a B+ grade, it is technical, bushy in places, long and exposed with some loose slope thrown in for good measure. Bonus points given for the fact that it involves complex route-finding.
Our second contender is Silverstream Ravine, a C-grade that leads up the north (front) face of Table Mountain. Although fairly tame for three-quarters of the way, it makes up for it with a steep top-section that involves tricky and exposed climbing.
Third up is Kloof Corner Pinnacle, a souped-up variation to the Kloof Corner route. Both are C-grade, but the Pinnacle route involves more scrambling, and if strictly adhering to the original route, more exposure. Awkward scrambling over considerable drops makes it hard, rather than bush and loose rock.
On the western side of the mountain, we have the Grotto-Fountain-Cairn Traverse, a sensational route with ample exposure, bushy stretches and tricky route-finding.
Victoria Gully, along with its non-official approach, Pimple Traverse, makes for a worthy addition to the above candidates. Long and bushy, it involves tricky and exposed scrambling in its latter stages. Graded B, but not to be sneered at.
So which one deserves the distinction of being the hardest hiking route on Table Mountain? It’s a tough call, but I have to give it to Hiddingh-Ascension via Ferny Dell. This route ticks all the boxes of what makes a route hard, and grand. Hats off to the pioneers, G.F. Travers-Jackson and G.T. Amphlett, who way back in 1899 blazed a trail up this forbidding part of the mountain.
Hiddingh-Ascension is such a superb route, it deserves its own blog post, which it will get in the near future. Best is to experience it first-hand. Hike Table Mountain offers guided hikes up this sensational route. If you’re adventurous, in good shape and have a good head for heights, then this route will blow you away. We’re ready when you are.
PS: Second place goes to Kloof Corner Pinnacle, by a short head.